Kiev's leaders hope to hold truce talks Saturday with pro-Russian separatists despite heavy fighting in Debaltseve, a railway hub that could prove a crucial link between the main rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The urgent new round of negotiations in Minsk had been agreed for Friday but was postponed due to disagreements over who should represent the rebel camp.
Ukraine is insisting on the presence of Donetsk insurgency commander Alexander Zakharchenko and the self-appointed leader of the separatist Lugansk region, Igor Plotnitsky, at the talks rather than just their representatives, a Ukrainian diplomatic spokesman told AFP.
Kiev's envoy, former president Leonid Kuchma, is expected in Minsk for the talks, which will be mediated by European and Russian envoys.
"We expect to sign a document that reinforces the Minsk Memorandum [of September] and the peace plan of presidents [Petro] Poroshenko and [Vladimir] Putin," Kuchma told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
The insurgents last week pulled out of peace talks and announced the start of an offensive designed to expand their control over a much broader swathe of the industrial southeast. They said Friday that they would not halt their actions in restive areas if the talks failed.
"Should the negotiations collapse... the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics reserve the right to pursue their offensive until the entire Donetsk and Lugansk regions are freed" of Ukrainian troops, the rebel regions' main negotiators said in a joint statement.
Battle for Debaltseve rail hub
Full-blown fighting between Russian-backed separatists and government forces has erupted in Debaltseve, a railway hub that could provide a crucial link between the main rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk if captured.
Separatists inched toward Debaltseve on Thursday when they burst through government lines into the town of Vuhlehirsk. The press office for Ukraine’s operations in the east said Friday that rebels were mounting artillery strikes on government checkpoints and bases in Vuhlehirsk.
“Precision strikes are destroying the opponents’ firepower, manpower and machinery,” the press office said.
The fighting is precipitating substantial hardship among the civilian population, which has been unable to leave the area. Debaltseve has been without electricity, running water and household gas for more than a week.
The United Nations on Friday voiced concern about the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Debaltseve and other densely populated areas in eastern Ukraine where intense fighting is going on. Neal Walker, the UNh umanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, has called for an immediate humanitarian truce to allow in aid and the evacuation of civilians.
“Indiscriminate shelling of civilians violates international humanitarian law and must stop,” he said in a statement.
Shells also rained down this week on the government-held town of Svitlodarsk, 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Debaltseve, destroying gas pipelines, toppling electricity pylons and putting the local hospital out of commission.
Residents across Svitlodarsk stood in huddled groups around the front entrance to their apartment buildings, by the steps leading to the basement, which are now doubling as bomb shelters. Many were busy chopping scrap wood and cooking meals of soup.
“A shell hit a gas pipeline. They turned everything off,” said 40-year-old welder Oleg Plashchechnik, as he boiled water to make tea. “There is no power. But the children have to eat, we have to survive somehow.”
Views among people in Svitlodarsk reflect the common split of attitudes reflected across much of the war-stricken regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. While some pleaded their support for a united Ukraine, others inveighed against the government for its role in a conflict that has claimed more than 5,100 lives, according to UN estimates.
With the hospitals in Debaltseve and Svitlodarsk now unusable, the grievously sick and wounded must embark on trips of more than an hour along roads targeted by artillery for treatment.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)